For this month's ATOM AotM, we visit the medical industry, and examine a technology that seems quite intuitive, but on account of patents and other obstacles, has seen rapid improvement greatly delayed until now.
Surgery seems as though robotics would be ideally suited for it, since it combines complexity and precision with a great deal of repetition of well-established steps. The value of smaller incisions, fewer instances of bones being sawed, etc. is indisputable, from qualitative measures such as healing pain, to tangible economic metrics such as hospital stay duration post-surgery.
Intuitive Surgical released its Da Vinci robot to the market in 2001, but on account of Intuitive's patents, they sustained a monopoly and did not improve the product much over the subsequent 17 years. Under ATOM principles, this is a highly objectionable practice, even if technically they can still earn a high profit margin without any product redesigns. As a result, only 4000 such robots are currently in use, mostly in the US. Intuitive has achieved a market capitalization of over $60 Billion, so it has succeeded as a business, but this may soon change. Now that Intuitive's patents are finally close to expiry, a number of competitors are ready to introduce ATOM-consistent exponential improvements into the competitive landscape.
The Economist has a detailed article about the new entrants into this market, and the innovations they have created. In addition to mere cost-reduction due to smaller electronics, one obvious extension of the robotic surgery model is for each robot to be connect to the cloud, where the record of each surgery trains an Artificial Intelligence to ensure ever-improving automation for several steps of the surgery. With AI, greater usage makes it improve, and when thousands of surgeries around the world are all recorded, that makes each machine simultaneously better. As costs lower and unit volume increases, the volume of data generated rises. As the accumulation of data rises, the valuation of companies capturing this data also rises, as we have seen in most other areas of technology.
This level of data combined with greater circuitry within the robot itself can also increase the speed of surgery. When more of it is automated, and the surgeon is doing less of the direct manipulation, then what is to prevent surgeries from being done at twice or thrice the speed? This enables a much shorter duration of anesthesia, and hence fewer complications from it.